About this Issue
Trendwatchers have been noticing the decline of the newspaper for years. Some want to stop it; some want to speed it up. In this issue, we’re going to ask what comes next.
The decline of traditional newspapers is all around us. Readership is broadly in decline; ad revenues have been down; and online services like Craigslist and eBay do much of the work that classified ads formerly did. Newspapers across the country have been folding, and the younger a person is these days, the more likely he is not to read a newspaper at all — never a good trend for a business.
Internet readership isn’t anything like a perfect equivalent. Online, readers may pre-select whatever news items they like, and they need not even be tempted to read stories that don’t appeal to them. It may prove that serious journalism — that is, stories about current events with original research and in-depth analysis — has less appeal than previous eras understood. Yet serious journalism is crucial for informed democracy.
How will we solve this enormous public goods problem, which the pre-Internet age seems to have solved with a clever bundling of news and advertising? Or is it less of a problem than we imagine? This month, we’ve invited a distinguished panel of journalism and social networking experts to discuss one of the most important issues in our democracy today. The lead essayist is the noted author and social theorist Clay Shirky; responses will be by journalism professor Philip Meyer, sociologist Paul Starr, and print-to-online crossover journalist Steve Yelvington.
Not an Upgrade — an Upheaval
The hard truth about the future of journalism is that nobody knows for sure what will happen; the current system is so brittle, and the alternatives are so speculative, that there’s no hope for a simple and orderly transition from State A to State B. Chaos is our lot; the best we can do is identify the various forces at work shaping various possible futures. Two of the most important are the changing natures of the public, and of subsidy.
As Paul Starr, the great sociologist of media, has often noted, journalism isn’t just about uncovering facts and framing stories; it’s also about assembling a public to read and react to those stories. A public is not merely an audience. For a TV show with an audience of a million, no one cares whether it’s the same million every week — head count rules. A public, by contrast, is a group of people who not only know things, but know other members of the public know those things as well. Both persistence and synchrony matter, because journalism is about more than dissemination of news; it’s about the creation of shared awareness.
Consider, as an illustration, the difference between assembling a public for a newspaper, and for stories on that paper’s website. The publisher assembled the public for the paper, maintaining subscribers lists and distribution chains, and got to decide what front-page news was for those readers. This was a bottleneck of value that used to be enforced by the limitations of print and distribution, and by lack of competition for sources of written news.
On the website, however, the stories are the same, but assembling various publics is different. The home page doesn’t serve the function the front page used to; for many papers, less than half the traffic even sees the home page. Instead, people who care about gay marriage, say, will pass around the relevant articles in email, IM, or twitter, whether those stories are on page A1 or B17, whether the paper is published in Anchorage or Miami. Online, it is the relevant networked publics, not the editorial board, who determine much of what gets read.
The logic of the Internet, a medium that is natively good at helping groups communicate at vanishingly low cost, is that the act of forming a public has become something the public is increasingly doing for itself, rather than needing to wait for a publication (note the root) to do it for them. More publics will form, they will be smaller, shorter-lived, and less geographically contiguous, and they will overlap more than the previous era’s larger, more rooted, more stable publics.
Which brings us to the changes in subsidy. Journalism written for that fraction of the population that follows the news closely has always been subsidized. For the last century, newspaper journalism had direct subsidy from advertisement and cross-subsidy from sports fans and coupon clippers who never really cared about the city council or the coup in Madagascar. The packages containing news have been so bundled and cross-funded that we’ve never really known precisely the size of the audience for actual civic-minded reporting, or how much direct fees from that audience would amount to. We do know, however, that the rough answers are “Small” and “Not much,” answers that suggest radical transformation, now that the media environment in which those subsidies flourished is gone.
We can expect changes in journalism to be linked to changes in subsidy. There are many shifts coming, but three big ones are an increase in direct participation; an increase in the leverage of the professionals working alongside the amateurs; and a second great age of patronage.
Participation first. Various self-assembled publics can increasingly engage in acts of journalism on their own. The functions of gathering readers, and providing analysis and opinion, are already moving from professional organizations directly into these overlapping publics, and increasingly, the basic act of reporting — of observing and then relaying — is as well. All of this represents a massive supply-side subsidy to the volume and variety of raw reporting.
Since the 7/7 London Transport bombings, we’ve gotten used to the first photos of an event coming from amateurs who were on site, rather than from photojournalists sent after the fact. Off the Bus, a journalistic effort that worked in partnership with the Huffington Post, used groups of citizens to offer coverage of events like the Iowa caucus by blanketing the state with hundreds of observers out for a couple of hours each, something no one could afford to hire professionals to do. (Amanda Michel of Off the Bus is now pursuing additional extensions to this model for ProPublica.org) And much of the documentation of the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 or the Iranian vote protests of June came from the participants. Events are documented and relayed by their participants, as they are happening.
However, there are still only twenty-four hours in a day, and as anyone who’s tried direct access knows, there’s always a sizable portion of teh crazy in any raw feed. This leads to the second change in subsidy: high leverage in having a small number of professionals vet, edit, and shape that raw material. Off the Bus didn’t just publish the raw observations of its amateur participants; they had a paid staff turn that material into something more suited to wide dissemination. However, the total paid staff was never larger than five, and ratio of amateurs to professionals came to exceed 1000:1.
Similarly, William Bastone and his staff at the Smoking Gun have moved from shoe leather to database queries in uncovering news; here the leverage is not professionals and amateurs but professionals and machines. The ability to get out of the “phone call” model of reporting — one paid journalist talking to one source at a time — and to instead bring in everything the internet has taught us about automation, syndication, parallel effort, and decentralization will increasingly characterize successful new models of journalism.
Finally, there’s patronage, either of the “one rich person” model, as with Richard Mellon Scaife’s subsidy of conservative journals, or the NPR Fund Drive model, where the small core of highly involved users makes above-market-price donations to provision a universally accessible good run for revenue but not for profit. These models have always existed alongside the for-profit press, but they were always viewed as oddities, their ability to continue to function being regarded more as a kind of perverse outcome than evidence of continued viability.
In an age where the cost of making things public has fallen precipitously, patronage models suddenly look not just viable but eminently reproducible. The leverage to be gotten from motivations other than profit is now growing rather than shrinking; a poorly capitalized journalistic weblog is now likelier to reach a million readers than a well-funded but traditional journalistic outfit is.
Because journalism has always been subsidized, and because the public can increasingly get involved in activities too complex for loose groups to take on before the current era, journalism is seeping into the population at large, with the models of subsidy being altered to fit that shift. The transition here is like the spread of the ability to drive, from paid chauffeurs to the whole population. We still pay people to drive, from buses to race cars, and there are more paid drivers today than there were in the days of the chauffeur. Paid drivers are, however, no longer the majority of all drivers.
Like driving, journalism is not a profession — no degree or certification is required to practice it, and training often comes after hiring — and it is increasingly being transformed into an activity, open to all, sometimes done well, sometimes badly, but at a volume that simply cannot be supported by a small group of full-time workers. The journalistic models that will excel in the next few years will rely on new forms of creation, some of which will be done by professionals, some by amateurs, some by crowds, and some by machines.
This will not replace the older forms journalism, but then nothing else will either; both preservation and simple replacement are off the table. The change we’re living through isn’t an upgrade, it’s a upheaval, and it will be decades before anyone can really sort out the value of what’s been lost versus what’s been gained. In the meantime, the changes in self-assembling publics and new models of subsidy will drive journalistic experimentation in ways that surprise us all.
Some Patterns in the Chaos
Chaos is indeed journalism’s lot, as Professor Shirky observes. However, some salient trends are visible, and there is no harm in extrapolating from them — not to predict the future, but to help us prepare for what Herman Kahn called “surprise-free scenarios.” Here are five trends that can impose some order on the chaos.
The marketplace is calling for ever more specialized information. This trend was well established in the second half of the 20th century, and the Internet greatly accelerated it. The opening of new channels for information frees suppliers from the need for economies of scale, a feature of the industrial age, and enables more specialized products aimed at smaller groups of consumers, a feature of the information age. This trend away from mass audiences was recognized in a seminal 1966 paper by Richard Maisel, who noted even then that monthly magazines were doing relatively better than weekly magazines and community newspapers better than metropolitan papers. A current example would be the Economist, which aims at public policy junkies. It is doing much better than Time, whose editors still strive for the mass audience. The theoretical possibilities for the Internet to extend the intensity of information specialization are, of course, endless.
The second trend is moving journalism from a hunter-gatherer activity to one more focused on processing. It parallels what happened to food when agriculture moved from family farms to large-scale corporate farming. Food became cheaper and more plentiful, giving us the luxury of choosing among a greater variety of possible forms. In 1983, the balance in the Gross Domestic Product tipped to favor food manufacturing over agriculture for the first time in our history.
In the information marketplace, the need for processing is increasing at two levels: in the production stage where analysis and interpretation help readers or listeners make sense of the oversupply of data, and in the transmission stage where information is packaged for ready retrieval by the specialized subsets of the audiences that want it. The initial success of USA TODAY can be attributed to its intense editing and formatting for time-starved readers. Of late, unfortunately, the newspaper industry has been cutting back on editing and further locking itself into the downward spiral.
As citizen journalism makes the hunter-gatherer aspect of journalism less valuable, we are starting to place more value on evidence-based versus source-based journalism. That’s the third trend. Source-based journalism depends on subtle market transactions between reporters and sources where each gives up something to attain a common goal. The sources want to control the flow of information to help their causes and make themselves look good. The journalists want to beat their competitors to the story. Evidence-based journalism, in contrast, works directly from documents and direct observation, with interested parties having less opportunity to spin the interpretation. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were classic examples of source-based reporting. Don Barlett and James Steele of Vanity Fair represent the other end of the spectrum. Their work follows paper trails, and it can be replicated. The problem, of course, is that evidence-based journalism takes longer and is more expensive because it requires special tools such as data mining and statistical analysis. It gives some urgency to Shirky’s question of who will do it and who will pay.
Dividing journalism into subcategories of specialists has already started a fourth trend: increasing the number of certification programs for journalists. When Shirky says that journalists are not certified, he overlooks the obvious. A journalism degree has become de facto certification for entry-level journalists. Eighty-five percent of new hires at newspapers and 92 percent of those at television news departments had journalism degrees in a 2005 survey by University of Georgia faculty.
The increasing activity of citizen journalists has spurred the creation of new ways of credentialing. OhmyNews, the world leader in citizen journalism, remodeled a rural school 90 minutes from Seoul and started the OhmyNews Citizen Journalism School. In the United States, The Society of Professional Journalists has created a one-day training program for citizen journalists. The Community Media Workshop at Columbia College in Chicago has brief training programs for citizen journalists, and Columbia University has created an online certification program for high school students to qualify them to report for Pearl World Youth News, an international service for high school papers created to honor the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. In a world where everyone can be a journalist, the need to distinguish the professionals from the amateurs — and to define the different levels and specialties — becomes essential.
And who will pay for all of this? The fifth trend is giving us a clue. Chaos stimulates entrepreneurship. In the northeast, investors in Patch Media are hoping to make money from advertiser-supported community journalism with a blend of professionals and citizen journalists. (You can check it out at patch.com. I’m a member of the editorial advisory board.) As of this week, it had five communities on line and four more under development. There are also efforts from a growing number of nonprofit and charitable organizations that try to fill the need for investigative reporting. The model is the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, founded by former TV journalist Charles Lewis in 1989 after he became frustrated by a sense that too many scandals were being ignored. Lewis has since moved to American University, where he runs the Investigative Reporting Workshop in the School of Communication.
Sustaining these non-profit ventures might be difficult. But Shirky is right when he says the leverage for motivations other than profit is growing rather than shrinking. The low entry costs of the Internet guarantee that. Foundations like to leverage their grants, putting their money where it is most likely to move the world a little. Because knowledge is equated with power, journalism has long benefited from foundation largess, and the visible failure of journalism’s traditional business model is stimulating even more participation. The bad news about foundations is that they like to keep trying newer things. So they prefer projects that have a chance of eventually standing on their own. The Center for Public Integrity survives because its CEOs have been willing to spend time shaking the money tree. And OhmyNews, which made money on advertising until the present global financial crisis, is trying to switch to a donor-supported model.
And now to risk a prediction: when the history of 21st century journalism is written, it will not look chaotic at all. Natural selection will have separated winners from losers, and, as Steve Jobs has said, connecting the dots is easy when you finally can look back. Meanwhile, we should all cheer for the innovators as they come along — no matter how crazy they might seem. The more things that are tried, the sooner we’ll learn what works.
The Public May Need to Subsidize Itself
Clay Shirky is entirely right about the uncertain future of journalism and the critical importance of subsidy in the emerging world of news and public controversy. Money, it is true, will come from somewhere because news has value, but where it comes from — and under what conditions — will matter for the kind of journalism and public life we have.
Consider, for example, one aspect of the shift now taking place as a result of the financial crisis of the press. Many regional papers in the United States have cut back or shut down their Washington bureaus, reducing coverage of their region’s representatives in Congress and the implications of federal policy for their area. The analogous process has also happened within the states; in the past five years, according to surveys by the American Journalism Review, the number of reporters covering state government has dropped by one-third.
Meanwhile, trade publications for particular industries and other forms of niche journalism continue to thrive, and some laid-off reporters are finding work in that sector. Instead of keeping track of government on behalf of the general public, more journalists are working for special interests that are willing and able to pay for the same service.
Will non-commercial patrons step in to rectify this imbalance and finance more public-service journalism? Perhaps, but I see no reason to assume so. Newspapers at the local and regional level have already retrenched, but the resulting decline in original reporting has not been offset by growth in other media.
The Internet encourages the idea that the loss of traditional journalism will be self-correcting. Professor Shirky writes, “The logic of the internet, a medium that is natively good at helping groups communicate at vanishingly low cost, is that the act of forming a public has become something the public is increasingly doing for itself …”
It is a bewitching thought the public will assemble itself. The idea is analogous to the perfect free market, and there is no question that by drastically reducing transaction costs, electronic communication and exchange have created new possibilities for both markets and publics. But law and therefore politics, as well as the unequal distribution of resources in society, shape the kind of markets and publics that develop. The contrasting fortunes of niche and public-service journalism illustrate that point. Those who follow trade publications can afford to pay top prices, and they can also usually write off their subscriptions as a business expense, whereas most subscribers to daily newspapers and political magazines bear the full price.
Public policy in the United States didn’t always put the public press at a relative disadvantage. Beginning in the 1790s, when most papers were partisan, Congress subsidized their development through postal policy. The postal rates for sending newspapers through the mail were set below cost, and editors could exchange copies with one another at no charge. Congress also refrained from taxing newspapers, a legacy of colonial opposition to Britain’s Stamp Act. These postal and tax policies — unlike the subsidies that the president and other officials gave their own party papers through printing contracts and government advertising — benefited newspapers across the board. In the language of modern First Amendment law, the postal subsidies were “viewpoint-neutral.” As Madison and other founders envisaged, they didn’t just promote newspapers; they also helped to knit together the young republic and sustain its political life.
By the Civil War, newspapers had gained a firm footing in the market, and as advertising grew, more papers became wholly independent of the patronage of political parties. Until recently, that framework — commercial and nonpartisan — has been the norm not just for newspapers, but for the broadcast news media that developed in the twentieth century.
Now that pattern has begun to change. On radio, original reporting has virtually disappeared from commercial stations, and a split pattern has emerged. Public radio has become the last refuge of journalism on the dial, while commercially sponsored talk radio is intensely ideological. On television, the decline of network news and the rise of cable have brought a shift toward a fiercely partisan journalism, and on the Internet as well, ideologically oriented news sites on both the right and the left have assumed a central role.
Partisan journalism has a legitimate role to play in news and public controversy. When the press was partisan in the early nineteenth century, the United States had a vibrant democratic life, and the return of partisanship to the news may be stimulating more interest in politics today. After decades of falling political participation, voter turnout increased sharply in 2004 and 2008. Though widely bemoaned, the partisan edge of contemporary politics and journalism may well have contributed to that upturn.
But while partisan journalism has a legitimate place, we also need sources of reported news that can be widely trusted. The Internet allows access to a diversity of opinion, but it hasn’t yet provided the economic basis for financing the professional reporting of news on anything like the scale of newspapers. This problem is especially acute at the state and local level because of the difficulty of aggregating a large enough public and thereby generating sufficient revenue from advertising, charges to readers, syndication, or some combination of sources.
Nonprofit financing is part of the answer, but grants often come with strings. Where there are patrons, there is dependency. Newspapers have enjoyed considerable freedom because the sheer number of advertisers has enabled publishers to avoid becoming dependent on any single one. The risk of a new age of patronage is that the sources of money are likely to be fewer and the power of sponsors correspondingly greater.
Curiously enough, government subsidies that are viewpoint-neutral and that do not give officials any discretion may be a less constraining method of supporting journalism than leaving it to dependence on patrons. Today, any such subsidies should be not only viewpoint-neutral, but also platform-neutral. We need the modern equivalent of the postal subsidies of the early American republic, except that there ought to be no bias in favor of publications that appear in print.
At this point, I am not advocating any specific form of subsidy — only that we should be open to the idea. There may be lessons for America in the experience of countries that have subsidized the news media without controlling them. Many European countries, for example, exempt news publications from the value-added tax; we have no VAT, but we do have a payroll tax, and one possibility might be to exempt not just newspapers, but all recognized news gatherers from that tax in whole or part.
For the past three decades, surveys in the United States have shown, particularly among the young, not just a decline in newspaper readership, but diminishing attention to the news and politics when taking all media into account. The financial crisis of the press is yet a further threat to the system of public accountability that democracy requires. That is what ought to concern us. What the public may need is to subsidize is itself.
Abandon Old Strategies to Survive in a New Era
William Gibson, the cyberpunk author, famously said the future is already here — it’s just unevenly distributed. True enough.
But the past is still with us as well, unevenly distributed. It’s worth keeping this in mind when we are tempted to conclude that we are approaching the End of Journalism As We Know It, or at least the end of newspapers, which in the minds of many (mostly newspaper writers) amounts to the same thing.
The year 2009 has been an ugly and painful time for newspaper journalists. We have seen a series of newspaper shutdowns including large dailies (Rocky Mountain News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer) and small (Kansas City Kansan, Tucson Citizen, Ann Arbor News). Some surviving newspapers have dropped some unprofitable days from their production schedule. The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press offer delivery only three days a week.
Thousands of journalists have been thrown out of work as newspapers desperately try to trim costs. The once-mighty Tribune Company is in bankruptcy. So are the Chicago Sun-Times, the Journal Register Company, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Others teeter on the brink.
From these and other data points, a hyperbolic narrative has been constructed: Newspapers are dying like the dinosaurs, the business model of professional journalism is hopelessly broken, and the republic itself is threatened by a vast wave of ignorance and blogging, which are somehow closely related.
Closely after that come desperate calls for special tax breaks and other government subsidies, and even laws criminalizing Web links and citations. Action is demanded against parasitic aggregators and digital vampires that are stealing readers and advertising from the true guardians of the People’s Right to Know.
It is craziness.
Banks are closing and auto dealers are going bankrupt, yet no one suggests we are facing the end of banking or that we’ll all quit driving.
In examining the future of journalism, it seems that many journalists lose their ability or inclination to check facts. Here are a few. The vast majority of America’s some 1,400 daily newspapers are still quite profitable (although not turning the eye-popping 40 percent margins some posted just a couple of years ago). Their websites are making money, and while the numbers are small in comparison with print revenues, they’re actually reasonably in line with the size of the loyal, repeat-user audience those sites have attracted.
And here’s the big one: The greatest challenge to newspapers comes not from Google News but from the same bad financial bets that are common to thousands of other troubled businesses.
This is not to suggest that Clay Shirky is wrong when he talks about an upheaval. He is quite right.
Technology is working deep changes in the way people discover, discuss and come to understand public events. Social processing of this information is moving from the family room and the dinner table onto networks. Information power is shifting from centers and institutions to edges and individuals. Anyone can be a publisher and maybe even a journalist at that moment when Flight 1549 crash lands into the Hudson River. Discovery moves from the newsstand to Twitter. Random-access linking disintegrates the old products. News sources bypass the old channels. Publics coalesce around experts rather than conveyors of expertise.
To the old order, all of this is chaos: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
In the context of such change, a journalist or a media executive who persists in operating as if we’re still living in the 20th century is guilty of failure to meet his or her moral and financial obligations to the public and to investors.
Yet that is exactly what all too many were doing, for far too long.
In other businesses, obsolescence is more easily identified and abandoned. Thrift-shop shelves are laden with abandoned 8-track tapes and dot-matrix printers, and no one would expect a profitable future in making such goods today.
Newspapers, however, continue to produce a product with the same general shape and the same general set of ingredients as a decade or even a generation ago.
Long after online stockbroker services rendered newspaper financial tables a ludicrous waste of paper and ink, many newspapers continued to cling to that expensive and meaningless tradition. Banner headlines about world events can be found on the front pages of many newspapers a day after that news was delivered to anyone who cares through the Internet and the 24-hour cable news channels.
While newspapers were quick to move onto the Internet, few grasped the implications and the opportunities provided by new technology.
It’s just another delivery channel, many said (imagining themselves to be enlightened), and we’ll give people the news in any medium they want. But it was the same old product, produced on the same old, stale schedule.
Newspapers could have invented search, directories and social networking. Few even tried. The resources that such projects would have required went instead to bigger corporate headquarters, color printing presses, and acquisitions of other media companies. Instead of investing in the future, media companies acquired more of the past, borrowing heavily to do so.
So we are left with today’s crisis.
A crisis, as economist Paul Romer has said, is a terrible thing to waste. This crisis has awakened those who were dozing in newsrooms and corner offices. Angry and confused, they are blaming everything and everybody in sight.
But this will pass. At some point, most will begin to take seriously the big, important, but slow-moving changes that Shirky describes and ask the right question: With these changes, how can we best create unique value?
There will be more than one answer to that question. Finding those answers will be a messy process involving failure and, for many, great personal pain. For the thousands of journalists, press operators, delivery drivers, and others whose lives will be turned upside down, it will provide no comfort to point out that the past is still with us, just unevenly distributed.
Yet many newspapers, which in many ways belong to that past, will be with us for some time. We still have horses, after all. In fact, there are more horses in the United States today than in Abraham Lincoln’s time, but we generally don’t ride them to work or have them pull our plows and wagons. What does that mean for newspaper journalism?
How long and how well newspapers and professional journalists persist in our future will be determined in part by how well they identify new ways to play socially valuable roles. As journalists, we must adapt to a world where we share information power with activists, businesses, and the people formerly known as the audience. Demands that the government protect us from change only distract us from pursuit of that future, which is already here.
The Transaction Costs of Creating a Public
Has the Internet drastically reduced transaction costs as Paul Starr suggests? Let’s think about that. To an old print person like me, it seems that the drastic reduction has come in the variable costs of distribution and raw materials. Variable costs were like a tax on growth: double your readers, double the newsprint consumed. For electronic media, practically all of the costs are fixed, making growth virtually free.
When Ronald Coase introduced the concept of transaction costs in 1937, he was trying to understand why we need business firms with hierarchical, command-and-control structures. Without them, we could envision an environment in which every worker was a freelancer. But then each action that required cooperation would be subject to individual negotiation. Putting all these contacts in the structure of a firm minimizes that overhead.
The need to minimize transaction costs is also a reason that newspapers evolved toward natural monopoly. Buyers and sellers needed a single marketplace to make it easier for them to find each other.
Maybe we are starting to see Internet users organize themselves for the same reason. In its raw form, the Internet tends to increase transaction costs because the great volume of information makes it difficult for specific content creators and consumers to cut through the noise and find each other. Now a reputational hierarchy is forming where sites like Cato Unbound or the Huffington Post find ways to originate, aggregate, and organize content for particular publics.
Are they creating these publics or just responding to publics that already created themselves? The idea of shifting issue publics that form themselves in response to events can be traced to political scientist Philip Converse in 1964. Perhaps the Internet’s contribution is that it facilitates the formation of these issue publics, makes them more stable, and potentially more potent. It sounds like a researchable question.
From Walter Cronkite to Tiger Beatdown
When you get four old white guys talking about journalism (45 may make me the baby of this quartet), you usually get re-runs of The Front Page and reminiscing about what a great paper the St. Louis Post-Dispatch used to be. What strikes me about the four posts here is the shared assumption that the near future of journalism will be quite unlike the recent past, for better or worse or, likely, both.
This is a big change from similar conversations of just a year ago, when “saving” newspapers was the assumed spine of most such discussions. Now, even reactionaries like David Simon and Steve Brill are floating proposals that would, if enacted, wreck the old social bargains on which newspapers have been based. (Steve Yelvington has an
amusing and succinct precis of Simon’s thesis; Brill’s seems to be that if everyone would just start crippling the web, the print product wouldn’t look quite so awful by comparison.)
There’s much to be said in a world where the debate is about how do deal with massive change, rather than whether to allow it, but for my first response post, I’d like to take on one additional change driving the altered logic of the various publics, one I didn’t mention in the lead essay: demographics.
One of the big changes in the new ecosystem is that public writing, whether news or opinion, is increasingly less dominated by people like me. I’m a straight, white, male baby-boomer, a chardonnay-swilling East Coast liberal, and a paid-up member of the chattering classes. (If it sucks, I’m it.) The American media landscape is now less created by me and my kind, for me and my kind, than at any time in history, a change that is not only likely to continue but accelerate.
I recently re-read George W. S. Trow’s elegy for the American mainstream, Within the Context of No Context, and what struck me was how stunned he seemed that new freedoms he clearly loved — this was a man who knew his way around Studio 54 — seemed to have upended the old world he also loved, the world of the WASPy men who were entrusted with the management of the main stream of American attention. Freedom for Trow, patrician but also gay, to be able to live his life as he wanted was corrosive of the assumed consensus of American life as it had existed for decades.
Something similar is happening today. We live in a world where Casey Gane-McCalla’s work at Jack
and Jill Politics is as accessible as the Washington Post (more, counting registration), where Sady Doyle’s writings about pop culture on Tiger Beatdown provide an antidote to Entertainment Tonight, imbibable by anyone willing to take the red pill. This is far from the world of Walter Cronkite, the world to which we are saying goodbye.
This is not to say that Cronkite was himself the problem; he was my hero when I was growing up, and a man remarkably willing to speak unpleasant truths. But he too operated in a world of assumed consensus, a world where, at 6 pm, the full range of choice about televised news came down to which of the three white men would present the news in English. That world, comforting as it was to people who look like me, masked the actual diversity of the American experience.
(It was comforting to me and mine in part because it masked that diversity.)
And that mask is gone.
So at least part of the story of disassembling the large, stable publics held together by 20th century news media is the undoing of economics of scale that meant large publics were the most valuable ones, while reaching smaller, more geographically dispersed publics was usually too expensive. This doesn’t mean that the large media outlets won’t continue to have large audiences, just that they’ve got a lot of competition from outside the world of Trow, and of Cronkite, and of me.
The Newspaper Bundle Doesn’t Make Sense
While I agree with almost everything Steve Yelvington has written about the news business, I do want to take issue with one thing: I think assuming long-term profitability of smaller papers is whistling past a pretty big graveyard, for several reasons.
First, the internet businesses that provide better service at less cost for markets like classifieds, jobs, and matchmaking have started in the largest urban areas first, for obvious reasons, but their economies of scale suggest that they have simply not colonized smaller conurbations yet. They’re coming; it’s just that Chillicothe gets Craigslist later than Chicago.
Second, news is not a small set of independent local businesses, like farmers’ markets. It’s an ecosystem, and the big papers subsidize huge parts of what appears in the smaller papers, providing disproportionate support for everything from the AP to opinion columnists to movie reviews. With enough suffering from the big papers, the smaller papers will no longer benefit from these subsidies.
Third, the lure of city living has returned to the nation’s youth, spurred in part by the net, which makes it much easier to explore possible job opportunities and housing options remotely. As a result, towns of progressively smaller populations have, ceteris paribus, residents of progressively advanced age. Since reading a newspaper is an old-person activity, the smaller the town, the higher the per capita consumption of papers (again, c.p.) This delays but does not dismantle the implacable logic of subscription loss. (Someone recently tweeted that small-town papers should rename their local obituaries “Subscriber Countdown!”)
Fourth, and finally, the grim reaper: the bundle that is the newspaper doesn’t make any sense. Box scores and soup recipes and Mark Sanford’s political woes and IBM’s closing price and a review of Taylor Swift’s new album don’t actually have any coherent rationale for being delivered together. All of those things went into the paper because print and distribution costs meant that the publisher added whatever content would cost marginally less than it would generate in display ads, a calculation that had nothing to do with coherence of bundled content and everything to do with industrial economics. Which economics do not translate to the web.
2009 is plainly the year of the Metro Dailies’ nabka, but the relative freedom from crisis felt by the smaller papers is, I believe, likelier to be a mere postponement of the same issues, rather than a stay of execution.
Research versus Processing
Philip Meyer writes, “The second trend is moving journalism from a hunter-gatherer activity to one more focused on processing.”
In the debate over news on the Internet, what professor Meyer calls “processing” is a point of bitter division.
A traditionalist view says there’s no news without a professional reporter to dig it up. This view often regards the “hunter-gatherer” as the true creator of news and “processing” as parasitic.
It goes like this: The hard-working, underpaid reporter uncovers facts, while the lazy, pajama-clad blogger opines. News originates with blood and sweat of beat reporters in the pay of traditional (print) media, while vampiric news aggregators and search engines feed on the results without paying the costs.
It’s striking how this view clashes with Meyer’s identified trend. Is journalism focusing on the right side of the value chain? What are the implications?
It may be true that the greatest value — social and economic — is created by processing facts into tasty packaged goods. This processing might carry many labels, but surely they include analysis, interpretation, commentary, aggregation, and editing. Are these processes naturally the domain of professionals? Or are they likely to include and maybe even be dominated by amateurs, the uncredentialed, the unaffiliated?
I tend to disagree with newsroom traditionalists about a lot of things. But maybe they’re onto something here. Maybe the blogosphere, that big news-processing parasitic engine, is the natural domain of the amateur. In a networked society where anyone can publish, the proof will be in the quality of the work, not in the institutional affiliation of the worker, or any credentials.
The process of analyzing the facts, associating and transforming them into higher-value packages on their way to human understanding, is open to all. If professionals bring special skills to that process, then it should show in their work. If not, they’ll simply lose in the open competition.
The prospect of amateur journalism may be frightening. But when we think about amateurization, we should stop to think about the origin of the word. The Latin root, amator, has to do with love. The amateur performs for the love of the work, without regard to pay. The best journalists I’ve known have been driven by that love. (Certainly no rational person would invest $80,000 to get a Master’s degree from the Medill School in order to qualify for a $40,000 job covering cops and courts for the Springfield Shopper.)
In the century since Walter Williams founded the world’s first journalism school in an effort to bring professional standards to the practice of journalism, much has changed. Among the changes is the consolidation of media under corporate ownership.
It may be that the statistic of 85% of new hires at newspapers having journalism degrees stems more from a filtering process created by corporate human resources departments than from any market forces applied by the newspaper editors who eventually hire them.
And it also may be that this is the high water mark in a professionalization wave that is being reversed by a new Internet-driven force. Whether that reversal is a good thing or not, we’ll discover later this century.
How Would We Craft a Subsidy?
I want to react to Paul Starr’s observations about subsidy, which I largely agree with.
To put his observations in economic terms, we have been in the unusual and happy situation, in the 20th century, of having an essential positive externality — an informed public, supported by an aggressive and talented press corps — subsidized both by advertisers and by the readers who paid full price for the paper to read about the Lakers or Megan Fox, while ignoring articles on the City Council or the Honduran coup. These subsidies allowed publishers to fund serious reporting for readers who do care, even though that reporting operated at a loss.
The “Come for the crosswords, stay for the war crimes!” theory of newspaper reading doesn’t describe the real world. Citizens who regularly read and react to detailed political news are a small but critical minority. Publishers know this; newspapers are divided into sections for a reason, and that reason isn’t to maximize the chance that a basketball fan will stumble across dispatches from Tegucigalpa.
Because the newspapers are being unbundled, they are suffering, but I believe Professor Starr is right to focus on the threat to subsidy rather than revenue. Because most of the staff of a newspaper isn’t engaged in production of civic value, the profitability of newspapers isn’t a matter of public concern, but the subsidy of people creating that value is.
The question of public subsidy raised by Starr creates the especially tricky question of incentives with taxpayer dollars. I am an avid New York Times reader, and love the work of both Gretchen Morgenson, a financial reporter, and Eric Asimov, a restaurant reviewer. I am also a politics junkie, and was glued to Nate Silver’s 538.com, which tracked electoral votes in the 2008 presidential election. Subsidizing newspapers would help Asimov but not Silver, a perverse outcome if the goal is civic value. The ideal would instead be a subsidy that aids Morgenson and Silver but not Asimov, not because his work isn’t terrific, but because the behavior of the nations’ banks and the outcome of its elections are critical public issues, but the quality of that new restaurant in the East Village isn’t.
With the caveat that politics is the skillful wielding of blunt instruments, such subsidies would almost have to be applied to the income tax of individual citizens. I have a hard time imagining how such a thing would work, though my imagination about tax matters has never been of the finest.
My best guess is instead that we will have to double down on new forms, both of journalism and of subsidy. (And let me cop to Mamonides Ladder’s complaint, quite correct, that I oversimplified the landscape of subsidy in my original post.) These new forms could involve anything from making it easier for virtual corporations to fund journalism to creating a new class of non-profits that would endow journalistic outfits (possibly with new language allowing non-profit political endorsements), as well as all the other forms of subsidy that will come from amateur participation.
Much as I like the idea of a single, content-neutral set of subsidies that reward civic value, as postal subsidies did, and as much as I understand the value created by commercial subsidy, as the metro dailies’ advertisers and readers did, I don’t think either of those models can be saved at the scale we need, and more importantly, I don’t think they can be replaced by other subsidies that work the same way.
I think, as so often with the move from analog to digital, we’re seeing to see a radical fracturing of what was a previously coherent activity, and the only response likely to help us discover workable solutions will be an equivalent fracturing of many forms of subsidy.